Friday, 6 January 2012

'Lusitania - An Illustrated Biography'

April 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of a certain White Star liner on her maiden voyage. The Titanic has been the subject of countless books, articles, films, tv programmes, etc, over the years but there have been other, much more interesting ships, which have had longer lives and equally dramatic deaths but which have had nowhere near as much coverage as the Titanic. One such was the Cunard liner Lusitania of 1907, also a Victim of a Tragic and Untimely Demise but which had seven-and-a-half years of life before being on the receiving end of a torpedo from a German U-boat, which sent her to the bottom of the ocean in May 1915.

I was browsing through Amazon just after Christmas and found a book titled 'Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography' by J. Kent Layton and bought it on a whim. I don't read many books these days, as most of my reading now seems to be internet-based, but as the Lusitania is one of my three favourite liners of the past (the others are her sister Mauretania and the American liner Leviathan of 1914, the latter ship the subject of a six-volume book by the late Frank Braynard - the six volumes are superb but not holiday reading!) and the reviews were good I decided to buy this one.

It took me several evenings to read the book and it was very good, worth the £42 I paid for it (this book is also not one to take on holiday flights, it is large and heavy!). It is well-written, reads like a novel (as all well-written factual stories should), has a lot of good photos and does not dwell on her untimely end at the hands of U-20. I have read other books about the Lusitania which gloss over 7.5 years of her life in the space of a chapter before getting into the gory details of the events of 7th May 1915; this is a pity because she was an interesting ship in her own right.

Lusitania at speed. Pic from *somewhere on net!*

The book describes the building of the ship, as well as the initial problems of severe vibration which rendered the Second-class accommodation all but uninhabitable and which necessitated rebuilding and strengthening of the stern areas before Lusitania could be handed over to Cunard. Life aboard the ship is described in detail, both for the passengers and the crew (and which included some dodgy goings on!), as well as accounts of hair-raising Atlantic storms which left Lusitania battered - one smashed her bridge in, shattering the windows and pushing the entire steel bridge front back; it took her crew a while to clear up the mess and get underway again. The ship equivalent of getting your lights punched out, I suppose! The 'Lusi' and her sister, Mauretania, were 'wet' ships which dove through huge waves, rather than rode over them - this was a feature of their slim hulls, designed for speed, but meant the ships were not the most comfortable in bad weather and were damaged now and then. However, the ships were never in any real danger, even if they did get beaten up occasionally, thanks to their strong construction.
Another interesting piece of information concerns the ship's watertight divisions - in the most ironic of ironies, Lusitania (and Mauretania) would never pass today's SOLAS regulations while the Titanic would!

Another interesting thing I didn't know about Lusitania was that she had to be taken out of service for eight months from December 1912 to August 1913 for major engine repairs. She had been run at high speed continuously for a period of three weeks during 1912 to make up some lost time from strikes in Liverpool and her turbines were not allowed to cool during the very brief turnarounds in New York and Liverpool. This, and a couple of other incidents, damaged the engines badly enough that the ship needed major repairs.

As well as the story of 'Lusi's' far too brief life, the book contains lots of photos of the ship from throughout her life some of which I have seen before but a lot of which I hadn't. She was a beautiful ship, both inside and out. Times move on and, as I have said before, I am a massive fan of modern merchant ships but 'Lusi' was a very pretty ship indeed, probably the prettiest, built for speed rather than cruises, no unsightly balconies there and far more attractive than even the best-looking modern cruise ship today (yes, Queen Mary 2, I do mean you ;) ).

The book isn't about the Lusitania's premature end but, obviously, as it dealt with her life it had to deal with her death as well. As is well known, she was on the wrong end of a torpedo from U-20 on May 7th, 1915. Lusi sank in 18 minutes, along with 1198 of the 1959 people she was carrying and, unfortunately, this is what she is most known for, all these years later. Poor old Lusitania deserves better than being remembered only as a casualty of a stupid war, she had nearly eight years of happy life and this book goes a long way to portraying her as the beautiful and successful ocean liner she was, rather than as just a victim of a tragic and pointless death. As it says in the final chapter, what would she achieved if she'd survived the war and had a long life alongside her sister and fellow liners? If you're interested in ocean liners of the past, this is definitely worth a read and I think it is worth the price for the pictures alone.